The 49ers went into Seattle on Sunday riding high after defeating the New England Patriots, the previous consensus best team in the league, in Foxborough in Week 15. They found themselves wearing the same crown that the Patriots had knocked off of their head. It didn't stay on for long. The Seahawks also had reason to be confident, having scored 50+ points in their previous two games, and they left the encounter with a 42-13 victory and all the momentum in the world.
There was not a lot of positives for a 49ers team that came into the game needing the win to maintain their hold on the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Their young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, a week after winning the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his play against New England, had probably his worst game as a pro. He went 19 for 36 with an ill-thrown interception to go along with a meaningless, last-minute touchdown. He had his running game completely nullified by the athletic Seahawks' defense.
The crowd noise at CenturyLink Field, one of the greatest home-field advantages in sports, caused problems for the young signal caller. The 49ers wasted timeouts at inopportune times and had multiple delay of game penalties. Kaepernick often appeared confused at the line of scrimmage and had trouble making changes. Seattle's 12th man deserves all the credit.
The 49ers' playcalling also came into question as the Seahawks' staff clearly outcoached their counterparts. The 49ers began the game with three straight incomplete passes on a three-and-out. The run was never established and Frank Gore ended the game with 6 carries for 28 yards. Many have questioned why more runs weren't called for Gore, but with Seattle scoring touchdowns on their first two drives, the 49ers were forced to pass more, relegating Gore to afterthought status. The only other game in which Gore had less than 10 carries was the blowout loss to the New York Giants, a game that followed a similar pattern.
The other major concern for the offense was the significant injuries suffered. Vernon Davis was knocked out of the game early, on a vicious hit by Kam Chancellor, that was flagged on the play. Davis suffered a concussion and his availability for the upcoming game against the Arizona Cardinals is unknown. Later in the game, Mario Manningham tore the ACL and PCL in his knee on a 0-yard gain in the second half. Davis would be expected to return by the playoffs, if not this weekend, while Manningham is gone for the year and his return by the start of next season is questionable.
While the two players technically play different positions, they are two of the top three pass catchers for the 49ers. With Davis likely to return soon, the tight end position is fine, but the same cannot be said about wide receiver. With Kyle Williams already on injured reserve and Manningham soon to join him, the position group is looking thin, a devlopment eerily reminiscent of 2011's playoff exit. Rookie A.J. Jenkins will most certainly see some significant action and could actually catch his first pass of the season. I'm left to wonder if the decision to keep Jenkins inactive for much of the season might hurt the 49ers. Having a fully-integrated Jenkins would make the loss of Manningham that much easier to weather.
While the offense fared poorly, the defense was arguably worse. The Seahawks offense scored touchdowns on the first two drives and never slowed down. Russell Wilson, the rookie revelation, was nothing short of spectacular. He finished the game 15/21 with 171 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was in control from the start of the game until the finish and cemented his argument for Offensive Rookie of the Year. His game against the 49ers was reminiscent of Colin Kaepernick's game against the Patriots the week before.
The 49ers' secondary was abused all day. Both Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner were frequently lost in coverage. Wilson's scrambling ability kept plays alive until coverage broke down and he avoided the 49ers pass rush all night long. He also finished with 29 yards rushing. Doug Baldwin caught two touchdowns.
The 49ers run defense, a hallmark under Coach Jim Harbaugh, had their worst outing of the year. Justin Smith missed the game, snapping his consecutive start streak at 185. His absence was noted. Marshawn Lynch ran for 111 yards and a touchdown. Backup Robert Turbin had a 24-yard carry and finished with 38 yards. NaVorro Bowman stood out for the 49ers, finishing the game with 16 tackles but the team was unable to make key stops. The Seahawks finished the game 11/13 on third down.
The big play of the game didn't come on offense or defense, but special teams. The 49ers appeared to be settling in and had taken a long drive down to the Seahawks' 3-yard line, only to be denied on third down. Red Bryant snuck through the line on the field goal attempt and blocked it. Richard Sherman picked the ball up and raced 90 yards down the sideline in a play that marked a 10-point swing. The 49ers offense had found their rhythm for the first time of the game, and the Seahawks return took what wind they may have had right out of their sails.
Most observers are left to wonder what happened. All credit goes to the Seahawks and Coach Pete Carroll. They outplayed the 49ers in every aspect of the game. They out-coached and out-hustled them as well. The 49ers can claim that they had an emotional let down after flying across the country and playing back-to-back road games against top-flight teams. Unfortunately, to win in the playoffs, the 49ers will now have to go on the road multiple times and every game in the playoffs is against a title contender.
While the loss stings in many ways, the 49ers should be able to hold onto the NFC West, winning the division if they can beat the hapless Arizona Cardinals at home in Week 17. They've slid out of the No. 2 seed, surrendering it to the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay was expected to be playing in Week 17 against a Minnesota Vikings team with nothing to play for. But the Vikings surprisingly went into Houston and knocked off the Texans, meaning that they'll need the victory to get into the playoffs. The game is in Minnesota and is no easy win so a No. 2 seed and the first-round bye are not out of the questions for San Francisco.
Recent history has shown that any seed in the playoffs can run the table and claim the Lombardi Trophy. All that is required is for a team to get hot at the right time and string some wins together. This is where the problem lies for the 49ers. They've yet to win three in a row in 2012, have failed to generate any stretch of consistent play, and are now facing injury issues at one of their weaker positions. If any team appears poised to stay hot and string wins together, it would be the Seahawks. It's not the end of the line for the 49ers, but they've yet to show they have what it takes to win it all, let alone inspire much faith in their fan base. A win against Arizona is the first step. Then they need to win 3 or 4 in a row for the first time this year. Otherwise 2012 will end in the same way as 2011, with a disappointing playoff loss.